Employment in the mortgage sector rose for the first time in three months in March, driven by an increase in loan broker hires.

Nonbank mortgage companies added 1,700 jobs during the month, bringing total employment in the sector to 333,400 from 331,700 in February, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday.

The number of mortgage and nonmortgage broker jobs increased by 2,000 to 94,500. But there were 300 fewer real estate credit jobs in March.

March's increase follows the same pattern seen in previous years. Nonbank mortgage companies reduced hiring in January and February before adding positions in March.

Future growth in industry employment is likely to be tied to the projected increase in purchase loan volume. However, industry economists have reduced their forecasts for purchase activity.

The Mortgage Bankers Association dialed back its purchase outlook based on its Weekly Application Survey, Mike Fratantoni, its chief economist said at the group's secondary market conference. At this time last year, purchase application volume was 10% to 15% ahead of where it was in 2015. In 2017, purchases are just 1% to 6% ahead of the same week in 2016.

Recent results in Fannie Mae's Home Purchase Sentiment Index survey showed "a movement upward in sales this year but not a strong movement upward," said Doug Duncan, who is that company's chief economist, at the same meeting. "People are now starting to register concerns about prices. It's becoming a factor towards the sentiment of buying a house."

Industry-specific BLS estimates lag one month behind its national data. Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 211,000 in April, an improvement from a revised increase of 79,000 jobs in March, BLS said. The unemployment rate fell to 4.4%.

"The pickup in hiring in the April jobs report supports the popular view that March's weak headline was a weather-induced slowdown. The trend in nonfarm payrolls so far this year points to a steady improvement in job gains, propelling the labor market further into full employment territory," Duncan said in a statement on Friday.

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